Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would block construction of the much-maligned new Senate office building complex. Already a source of criticism from many conservatives, the building is now the subject of legislation brought by Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, and Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, that would strip the crucial language from the 2013 tax bill, leaving the $90 million project unfunded.
Dean and Chamberlain highlighted their bill with a Monday morning Capitol press conference. Joined by numerous other GOP lawmakers, they spelled out a number of complaints with the construction plan, which they say is unpopular and unnecessary.
“Republicans’ priorities are family first, people first, before the needs of politicians,” Chamberlain said.
The legislation does not offer an alternative plan for where to put temporary office space, which will be needed during the ongoing Capitol restoration work, or for a long-term location for the Senate. Dean did not give a definitive idea during the press conference, but said he thought nearby buildings could be used to find “swing space” for senators and staff during the Capitol construction.
The building’s constitutionality has also been challenged in a lawsuit filed by former Republican legislator Jim Knoblach, who is also the GOP-endorsed candidate to challenge Rep. Zach Dorholt, DFL-St. Cloud. Knoblach argued that the building’s inclusion in the 2013 tax bill violated the statute that requires bills be confined to a single subject. That claim was rejected by a Ramsey County judge in February, but Knoblach is appealing the decision directly to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
Dean agrees with the thrust of Knoblach’s suit, and also argued the construction project does not have a specific funding source.
“There’s no appropriation for this building in any bill, which is unprecedented for a building of this type,” he said.
Approval of the building is currently pending in the House Rules Committee, whose chair, House Majority Leader Erin Murphy, held an informational hearing in late February. Dean said Republicans shared questions Murphy has asked about availability of existing space in the Capitol and other state buildings as a short-term solution.
Since its first introduction, Dean’s bill has gained dozens of Republican co-authors, including Rep. Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, now a candidate for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Zellers released his own statement shortly after the press conference, arguing that the “luxurious” building, with its average cost of $1.5 million per Senate office, should be canceled during this session.
“In the spirit of the ‘un-session’, the time is now to repeal the Senate Legislative Office Building for the hardworking families of Minnesota,” Zellers said.
Funding for the new office building, which would include permanent office space for 44 Senate offices, largely flew under the radar during the 2013 session, but was included as a provision in the omnibus tax bill. The issue has since been brought up repeatedly by Republican legislators and gubernatorial candidates, and last week emerged as a point of contention among Democratic leaders. Gov. Mark Dayton railed against DFL Senate leaders for appearing to halt progress on a tax repeal bill as part of negotiations on the office complex, which also includes a pair of adjacent parking lots.
The controversial topic surfaced again during the Senate floor debate on those tax cuts, when Republicans offered amendments that would also have effectively stripped money from the building project. Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, countered that the GOP efforts were in violation of the rules, as the amendments were not germane to the bill then being debated on the floor.
Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge, did manage to force a floor vote to overrule that finding, which failed, though two Democrats — Sens. Kent Eken (Twin Valley) and Leroy Stumpf (Plummer) — joined Republicans in voting for the motion to go forward.
On Monday, Dean warned that the inclusion of the building could delay the next step of work on the Capitol, which could push up costs for taxpayers.
“This is going to cost time and money,” Dean said, “and time is money, so there needs to be a resolution on this.”